Given that the build-up often verged on the surreal, the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup quarter-final performance against France was appropriately out of this world.
All week the talk had been of bogey teams and hoodoos, coups and smokescreens. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any stranger, All Black coach Steve Hansen lobbed the Rainbow Warrior bombing into the mix.
The media fixated on the defeat at the hands of the same opponent at the same venue at the same stage of the 2007 tournament. The All Blacks were supposedly sleep-walking into another ambush, as if they were the only people in the global rugby community who’d forgotten what happened at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium eight years ago.
Captain Richie McCaw began the week by insisting that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. He ended it by pointing out that several of his teammates were still at school in 2007 and had to be brought up to speed on what everyone was on about.
If the scribes were to be believed, Hansen’s Rainbow Warrior reference caused sharp intakes of breath in the chancelleries of Europe and beyond. It was a “clanger”; a “jibe” that would assuredly ramp up tensions. The Sydney Morning Herald wanted to know: “Did Steve Hansen really say that?”
What he actually said was: “There has been a great relationship between the two countries for a long, long time. Apart from the Rainbow Warrior, we’ve probably been on the same page most of the time.”
If you wished to critique this statement, you might argue that Hansen over-egged the pudding in terms of the cosiness of Franco-New Zealand relations, but the implication that he committed a dreadful faux pas is taking diplomacy to the point of toadyism. The French committed the crime; they lied about it; they welshed on the deal. They have to live with it.
Reports out of France claiming the French players had “overthrown” coach Philippe Saint-Andre were dismissed by the New Zealand management as mind games, an unsubtle way of reminding the All Blacks they very nearly lost the 2011 final at home against an underdog French team that had fallen out with then coach Marc Lievremont.
The only hard evidence was reasonably compelling – a photo of giant lock Yoann Maestri shouldering Saint-Andre in the players’ tunnel after France’s loss to Ireland. And the French do have a history of turbulent player-coach relations. It was little wonder Lievremont wasn’t loved by his men given that he’d previously questioned their intelligence, accused them of betraying the French jersey and described them as “good guys but cursed with what is obviously cowardice.” He was following the example set by his predecessor Bernard Laporte who called his players liars, cheats and donkeys after a Six Nations defeat.
After putting France to the sword, the All Blacks “have one hand on the World Cup”, according to the same UK pundits who’d spent the week running the “prepare to meet thy doom” line. Sporting pundits, amateur and professional, are compulsive builders of sweeping narratives around single performances. The Springboks were written off after losing their opening pool game to Japan: they haven’t lost a game since and now stand between the All Blacks and a place in the final.
How often do we see teams rebound from poor performances, especially when they trigger media scorn? Conversely, replicating a stellar performance is difficult because it requires you to maintain focus and intensity while basking in the glow of a job well done and being praised to the skies.
That’s this week’s challenge.
This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Listener.